The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the Kerala government’s phased prohibition policy, making it easier for other states that intend to ban liquor.

A division bench of the apex court, comprising Justice Vikramajit Singh and Shiva Kirti Singh, delivered the significant judgement while dismissing a batch of petitions by bar hotel owners and workers challenging the government’s anti-liquor policy.

In August 2014, the Kerala government said that bar licenses would be issued only to five-star hotels, even as it sought to shut 10% of the state’s retail liquor outlets every year. With this, Kerala, the state with the highest liquor consumption in the country, will be alcohol free by 2024.

The judgment may cheer governments in other states that are contemplating similar policies to introduce prohibition or to restrict the sales of liquor. Among them is the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar, which last month announced that liquor sales would be banned from April 1.

Some relief

The Supreme Court verdict has come as a breather to the United Democratic Front government, which is reeling under the charges levelled by bar owners that some ministers had accepted bribes in return for allowing them to continue to operate. While Finance Minister K M Mani resigned over the allegations in November, Excise Minister K Babu is facing a vigilance probe over the allegations.

The Communist-led opposition Left Democratic Front has been using the bar bribery allegations as a weapon in the run-up to next year’s Assembly elections. It has expressed the hope that the adverse court verdict will force bar owners to reveal more about the bribes they allegedly paid out.  Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan said the new revelations may even lead to the downfall of the UDF.

In October 2014, the Kerala government decided to move gradually towards a complete ban on liquor  in the state by shutting down 730 bars. About 75 retail outlets have been closed since then. In March, the Kerala High Court upheld the policy, observing that it could not interfere with the state’s right to frame policies aimed at promoting the welfare of the people.

High consumption levels

Bar owners challenged the verdict, claiming that it was discriminatory. But the state government said that it wanted to prevent young people from destroying their lives by drinking too much.  Kerala accounts for 14.9% of India’s total liquor consumption. The state’s people consume liquor worth Rs 30 crores a day.  Kapil Sibal, who represented the state government in the case, said that the policy was to protect the youth by providing them education and nutrition.

Agreeing with the arguments, the Supreme Court upheld the government’s right to restrict the availability of liquor. Regarding the pleas of the workers that they be rehabilitated, the court said they could approach the high court or even Supreme Court if the steps taken by the government are not satisfactory.

An analysis of the statistics from the Kerala State Beverages Corporation, the major government-run seller of Indian made foreign liquor in the state, shows that the alcohol consumption has dropped by 20.27% since April 2014, when bars were partially closed.